Do You Believe in Atheists Who Believe in God?

Nov 14, 2014

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By Merrill Miller

The definition of an atheist is someone who lacks a belief in any kind of deity. Alternately, an atheist could be defined as someone who asserts that no kind of deity exists. With either definition in mind, how did the Pew Religious Landscape Survey discover that one in five self-identified atheists believe in God?

In a November 4 article for Religion News Service (RNS), Tobin Grant attempts to reconcile these findings with what atheism means, acknowledging first that the term “atheism” may mean something different to individual people and that their personal definition may not fit the conventional understanding of the term. For instance, someone may take an active dislike to institutionalized religion but believe in some sort of higher power, and may adopt the label “atheist” as a kind of protest against the bureaucracy and dogma that she or he associates with traditional faiths. Grant also considers the possibility that some survey respondents may consider themselves atheists but use the term “God” to refer to abstract laws of nature or the principles of the universe. Additionally, the article recognizes that issues of personal belief or nonbelief are often complex and cannot be communicated through simple survey options. An atheist might acknowledge that there is a social construction of an all-powerful being referred to as “God” without believing that this being objectively exists outside of society’s conception of it. However, this intricate view is difficult to convey in a survey response.

Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

26 comments on “Do You Believe in Atheists Who Believe in God?

  • @OP – Grant also considers the possibility that some survey respondents may consider themselves atheists but use the term “God” to refer to abstract laws of nature or the principles of the universe.

    It sounds like some DEISTS don’t understand the word “atheist”! –
    We would need to see the questionnaire to find the source of confusion if it was derived from unclear questions, or unclear interpretation of questions and answers.

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  • 2
    Light Wave says:

    Article writers really should learn to Ask the right questions … this is not one of them – they might get a decent answer if they asked proper questions……..No one would be an atheist if they believed in any god….and why would anyone need to ‘believe’ in Atheists – there’s no need to ‘believe in’ atheists…. as there is no question that Atheists definitely exist….Did an irrational illogical child write this question….?

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  • The further link to the Religion News Service survey and graph is here;

    Hindus and Buddhists had sizable groups who said the believed in God, but the question was general, asking about belief in “God or a universal spirit.” Most Reform Jews and Unitarians are uncertain about or do not believe in God.

    Perhaps most surprising, six percent of atheists said they were “absolutely certain” that God exists; nearly one-in-seven agnostics said the same. Just more proof that labels that people claim in a survey don’t always mean to them what they mean to the rest of us.

    It looks like some people are inept at filling in forms, or don’t understand the meaning of words or the questions!

    To ask some Buddhists who believe in supernatural reincarnation but no gods, or Hindus who believe in a multitude of gods, if they believe in (Abrahamic) “God” with a capital “g” is confusing.

    Likewise cultural Xtians Jews, and Unitarians have an entirely different understanding of the word than fundamentalist groups.

    An interesting inference from this graph (if it is accurate), is the percentage of “members” of various religious groups who do NOT believe in a personal god.

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  • 4
    Light Wave says:

    Alan – Religion definitely peddles to the uninformed….people don’t realise they are individuals….they’ve been indoctrinated so successfully they continually sign over their children’s minds and bodies to those religious cults without question…So if religion can confuse them with its crazy complicated self importance and conflicting paradoxes then what hope have they got trying to comprehend reality….Religion preys on stupidity and keeps it uninformed and confused deliberately, they are better sheep when they need a guiding shepherd….

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  • Well, this is an easy fix…

    With either definition in mind, how did the Pew Religious Landscape
    Survey discover that one in five self-identified atheists believe in

    To paraphrase from the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

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  • ” ….and why would anyone need to ‘believe’ in Atheists –there’s no need to ‘believe in’ atheists….”
    The question was whether or not you believe atheists who believe in God exist.
    Obviously the oxymoronic title of the article is just a hook.

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  • Without reading the questions actually asked in the survey, the only consideration I can make is the following:

    wide black: the total absence of light; if something is widely black, there aren’t real photons in it. You may still be able to use the sense of touch, smell and taste, but you won’t see any light.

    narrow blak: the absence of light, although there might still some diffusing around, casting on everything a faint, soffuse glow. Istitutionalized colors aren’t yet percieved, but you can see something

    …wait a minute: isn’t that grey?

    And I bet I’d get some different distributions of answers if I ask around “is that black or grey/else?” or “are there colours or not?”.

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  • 10
    Miserablegit says:

    It is not a case of whether or not you believe in atheists who believe in God, it is quite simple believe in God and you cannot possibly be an atheist end of argument.

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  • I’m an atheist. I’ve been toiling for years to deny the need for adjectival qualifications like: Militant atheist, strident atheist, new atheist, aggressive atheist…. Now some bozo has donated another term for the theists to add to their arsenal of the obscurantist blather – “Narrow” – I mean WTF? as Hitch would have said ” sheer babble”, adding nothing to an argument and serving only to take attention from the real issue, which is quite simply put: “There probably is no god, so get on with enjoying life.”

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  • achromat666 Nov 14, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    To paraphrase from the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

    I suppose if someone escaping from fundamentalism, came from a family where the definition of “atheist”, was “anyone who rejected their pet version of god”, a confused DEIST or cultural Xtian, could think they had become an atheist!

    (If you think this is strange, consider that I have heard of thick Catholic priests from the West of Ireland, describing CofE protestants, as “pagans”! {“Religion” = Catholicism, “Pagan” = non-Catholic} )
    Redefinition of common words is a regular feature of religious (mis)understading!

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  • duck_manson Nov 16, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    It’s like vegetarians who eat chicken. “That’s not really meat!”.

    Or Japanese who eat whale? “That’s not really meat!”. (It’s fish – allegedly).

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  • I am not quite sure about this,as i have never seen a athiest who beleaves in God’s.Its abit obvious the the creation of a god came from a single idea,which was put into practice and now your seeing the world and the outcome of that single idea.and the exstent of what can be done,when there is no education but the emagination.profit make the church,the church makes prophets.and vice versa.the greatest idea’s came from science,religion hasn’t a foot to stand on without looking foolish.just as a computer takes commands,so can the human brain,otherwise people wouldent blow them selves up for a single beleaf.a word virus in the biological brain.the anti virus being a simple word,”NO”

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  • 18
    Charlotte says:

    The survey was made in 2007 and published in 2008. Some anti-atheist blogs about it in 2014 using a graph that he or his organization (“Corner of Church & State”) created from the survey. The graph states that 6 % of atheists believe in God. The survey on the other hand did not contain that level of detail. 22 % of the “unaffiliated” said they did NOT believe in God. Granted, the actual atheists and agnostics made up 25 % of the unaffiliated group, but there were also some who “didn’t know”, claimed “other” or refused to answer. It’s not possible to see how many of any group were atheists. 70 % of unaffiliated said they DID believe in God and 75 % of the unaffiliated did not claim to belong to groups that do NOT believe, so to my mind that should tell us that a small group of people who does not claim to be atheists still do not believe in God. (Also some agnostics might say they’re not sure whether God exists. If they felt sure, they’d call themselves atheists, no?)

    I went on to read the same blogger’s article on “why” some atheists believe in God. He doesn’t actually answer that question but produces another graph that cannot be deduced from the survey he refers to. The graph supposedly shows how many atheists believe in the bible, heaven etc compared to their educational level. Again the survey bunched atheists with unaffiliated, and while they asked them about educational level they did not match this to their beliefs. Many questions that the blogger claims atheists answered were only asked of people who believed (i.e. not atheist). For instance he claims that 5 % of atheists believe in a personal god. The survey only asked whether you believed in a personal God if you’d previously claimed you did believe.

    Bottom line. The blogger is lying through his teeth. (Or stupid. Or both.)

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  • My answer to “Do you not believe in god”, has always been, “I have no NEED to believe in god”. The evidence of the likelihood of there not being a god came later.

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  • 21
    Charlotte says:

    I should clarify that I meant the original blogger/article and not the Humanist article by Miller which was linked to from here.

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  • Maybe the fourth philosophical classification should enter the conversation. The ignostic places the burden of definition upon the deist, the agnostic, and the atheist. Any survey is rendered uninformative if the respondent is not sufficiently queried to the point of ascertaining how the survey questions are perceived by the respondent.

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  • throw a spanner in the works by reminding us of the various meanings of the word “believe” why don’t you?

    maybe that’s the problem with theists’ view of atheists who don’t believe in god, they think we accept a god exists but are of the opinion it shouldn’t be allowed.

    of course I don’t believe in god due to the lack of evidence but I’ve met americans who “believe in america” yet would struggle to find evidence of its existance if you handed them an atlas

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  • Yeah, my position has always (well, lately) been one of irrelevance, not belief or dis-belief. As in, the very concept of a god is irrelevant in a scientifically advanced society.

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  • 26
    Robert Firth says:

    I remember one rather puffed-up “vegetarian” whom I found wolfing down a cheese omelette. He patronisingly explained that he was, to be precise, a “lacto-ovo-vegetarian”.

    That was when I realised I too could be a vegetarian, and feel holier than thou (or for atheists, less unholy than thou). So I am now a “carno-vegetarian”.

    But back on the point: many avowed atheists have slipped into god=talk from time to time. Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking come to mind. Of course, to them the word “god” is a metaphor for something else, such as Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura. But I still think it an unwise choice of words.

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